Somebody needs to call an ambulance. There’s a principle lying on the ground, and it’s been kicked around so much that it’s barely recognizable. What’s your name, little buddy? Transparency? Oh yes, I remember you. Weren’t you everybody’s best friend a little while ago? What the hell happened?
Once, every politician wanted to take transparency to the ball. Transparency was more popular on the campaign trail than Bruce Springsteen, more alluring than Angelina Jolie, able to leap doubters in a single bound. Here’s what President Barack Obama had to say in 2008, when he was nobly seeking office and not uncomfortably occupying it: “I’ll make our government open and transparent, so anyone can ensure that our business is the people’s business. … no more secrecy, that’s a commitment I make to you.’’ He quoted Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.”
Unfortunately, someone’s forgotten to open the curtains these past few years. Mr. Obama, brought to office on a tide of (perhaps unrealistic) optimism, heads an administration that seems vampirishly afraid of light. It energetically prosecutes whistle-blowers, eavesdrops on journalists and, now, in what’s bound to be the biggest scandal of his term, is revealed to be snooping on its own citizens.
As it turns out, the National Security Agency has not only been secretly collecting data on millions of phone accounts, but also, through a program called Prism, is sweeping some of the world’s most popular Internet companies for personal information (the NSA claims this program isn’t targeting the data of U.S. citizens.) The news broke on the third day of the trial of Bradley Manning, the document-leaking U.S. army private on trial for endangering national security. Think of the fun Thomas Pynchon could have had with that coincidence, if he weren’t such a hermit.
Anyone who thinks Prism is a standalone operation should read Wired Magazine’s 2012 investigation into the top-secret Utah Data Center. A vast, $2-billion information-storage facility that is essentially the world’s largest data colander, it’s designed to sift terrorism clues from the cauldron of cat videos and Justin Bieber tweets that make up the Internet. If private communications are caught in the sieve, it’s the price of safety, apparently.
As Wired noted, “for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration … the [National Security Agency] has turned its surveillance apparatus on the U.S. and its citizens … building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret.”
“Secret” is not a very popular word on the campaign trail. Transparency, on the other hand, has become political shorthand for openness and accessibility: Look, we tweet! Sometimes! About picnics! And pandas! It’s the modern equivalent of “fairness,” a weasel word with no teeth and no meaning.
Ten points for guessing who wrote this, in 2005: “Information is the lifeblood of a democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt governance can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.”
Anyone? It was Stephen Harper, on the campaign trail, knowing precisely what voters like to hear. Now, famously, the Prime Minister leads a government that is about as generous with information as Midas was with his gold. Don’t take my word for it; ask the stream of privacy commissioners, backbenchers and statisticians who have come to the same conclusion. Speaking this week at a discussion about federal researchers being silenced, climate scientist Gordon McBean said, “I don’t think we’ll see change when scientists are upset, but when Canadians are upset and demand change.”
The latest to express concern about this control-freakery is backbench MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Tory caucus over the gutting of his private member’s bill, which would have revealed the salaries of top civil servants. Mr. Rathgeber wrote on his blog: “I thought we were somehow different, a band of Ottawa outsiders riding into town to clean the place up, promoting open government and accountability. I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked.”
Speaking of mockery, the highly secretive Bilderberg conference is taking place outside London behind a giant fence, the better for Goldman Sachs and Christine Lagarde and Eric Schmidt to divvy up the world in peace. Bilderberg is many things to many people – a slumber party for plutocrats, Burning Man for conspiracy theorists – but transparent it ain’t. Yet British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has spent the three years of his tumultuous reign swearing his government is as see-through as a newlywed’s nightie, attended the closed-door, closed-mouth gathering. British reporters wanted to know why, and Mr. Cameron’s spokesman side-stepped neatly by saying, “The Prime Minister has always believed in the importance of transparency.”
My favourite British political blogger responded to the spokesman’s statement with a dry, “LOL.” Looking at that poor, abused little word “transparency,” I’m tempted to add, “SOS.”